Political Flight

After temporary storage in the VAB and OPF, on 26 September 1985 Columbia finally began processing for her next flight, which by now had been redesignated STS-61C, and was scheduled for launch shortly before Christmas. Although Hoot Gibson's crew had retained the MSL-2 payload, the remainder of their planned five days in space would be relatively 'roomy', with comparatively few experiments to perform and just one commercial satellite - the Radio Corporation of America's Satcom Ku-1 - to deploy into geosynchronous transfer orbit.

Hawley would say later that one of Columbia's passengers, Congressman Bill Nelson of Florida, may have had something to do with it. ''Frankly, our payload wasn't very robust [and] were it not for [Congressman Nelson's] presence on the flight, we might have been cancelled. We had one satellite and some other experiments. It was almost kind of a clearing-house sale. We had a lot of GAS cans and Hitchhiker payloads and a bunch of stuff that hadn't been able to fly previously, and here came a flight that we only had one satellite and nothing else on board. So they were able to put some of this other stuff - which was important in that they had commitments - but in the grand scheme of things, after we got into delays you could conceive of somebody saying, 'Well, you know, I'll bet we can put that satellite somewhere else and just not fly this flight.' We wondered about that and always thought that might have happened if we hadn't had a congressman, but this was his flight and so we had some guarantee that it would happen.''

By the end of 1985, all four Shuttles were fully operational and more than 20 missions had been successfully flown by Columbia, Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis. Thirty satellites had been placed into orbit, including three top-secret ones for the US Department of Defense, and representatives of Canada, France, Saudi

The STS-61C crew. Bottom row (left to right) are Steve Hawley, Franklin Chang-Diaz, Pinky Nelson (background) and Hoot Gibson. Top row (left to right) are Bob Cenker, Bill Nelson and Charlie Bolden.

Arabia, West Germany, the Netherlands and Mexico had accompanied their payloads into orbit. Two commercial satellites whose upper stages failed had been salvaged by the Shuttle and two others - Solar Max and Leasat-3 - had been successfully repaired in orbit by spacewalking astronauts.

On the scientific side, the reusable spacecraft had amply demonstrated its capabilities as an Earth-orbiting research platform. Since the pioneering flight of STS-9, the Spacelab module had flown twice - including a dedicated mission sponsored by West Germany - and the pallet-train-and-igloo combination had been satisfactorily tested. The outlook for the Shuttle project seemed bright: nine missions were accomplished in 1985 - transporting 54 astronauts into space, four of whom actually flew twice that year - and 14 were on the books for 1986, including the long-awaited deployment of NASA's scientific showpiece: the $1.5-billion Hubble Space Telescope.

NASA's decade-old promise of achieving routine access to space and sending Shuttle crews aloft once every two weeks seemed to be drawing closer. All four operational vehicles would be required to accommodate the intensive schedule for 1986: of those 14 missions, Columbia was slated to fly at least four times. Her return-to-flight on STS-61C, after more than a year of modification and refurbishment, finally received a firm launch date: 18 December 1985. It was supposed to be

NASA's tenth mission of that year, capping a triumphant 12 months of Shuttle achievements and heralding an even-brighter 1986.

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